Pilgrimage in the Clouds: Baba Budanagiri Hills

The iron lady of India had much to thank Chikmagalur for. If the sleepy town hadn’t re-voted her in 1980, Indira Gandhi would have remained in the political wilderness because of the emergency. Earlier, probably in 1650, a Sufi saint planted the first coffee trees in the district and helped create India’s finest coffee estates. These plantations were in turn nurtured and expanded by the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Indian planters and companies own hundreds of acres of arabica and robusta plantations that cover the slopes of the hills. Peppersticks wrap over the silver oaks that shade the coffee shrubs.

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Baba Budan Hills (Photo by Motographer)

This is the neighborhood where the crescent is shaped Baba Budanagiri Range stretches for 80 km, rises majestically to an average elevation of 1,500 – 1,900 m and blends seamlessly with the Western Ghats, designated as one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots of the world. This is the free range of the endangered tiger, bonnet macaque, gaur, elephant, spotted deer and nilgai. More than 250 bird species, more than 300 precious medicinal plants and herbs, orchids and flowers and varieties of bamboo and wood trees flourish here. This is also home to the great Bhadra River which starts as a series of streams on the hills and then tumbles onto the plains. The Jagara-vallei settles between these hills.

A folk song of the area captures the spirit of the place in these words: ‘When the bamboo sways to the voice of the wind and the tiger roams with merriment, then it must be Jagara Valley.’ Trekking in these hills is pure joy. In a few hours one experiences a microcosm of the evolutionary scenes, from the lichens and moss clinging to the rocks to the dry deciduous sholas and grasslands. Carry water if one tends to get dehydrated during the trek. You can drink from the crystal clear springs when you are higher up. Carry salt to rub on leeches to get rid of them





Take a bus from the Chikmagalur bus station towards Kemmannagundi, and just 6 km away, get off at the archway that says ‘Sarpanadari’, literally the trail of the serpent. It will be even better to start your trek from the town itself, heading north on the state highway leading to Kemmannagundi. After 3km the road begins to turn and ascend. Coffee estates are on the slope. Another 3 km and the ‘Sarpanadari’ arch beckons you to the left. There is a signboard indicating the path to the Mullaiyanagiri Peak (1,925m).

Mullayanagiri Peak (Photo by Riju K)
Mullayanagiri Peak (Photo by Riju K)

Avoid the motorized road that takes you three-quarters of the way to the top. Instead, go on the path to your right. You will find the first hill decorated with slippery rocks, bamboo and thorny bushes in 45 minutes. Take a breather and a drink of water. There is a plateau that extends about 30 meters in front of you. Cross it and the next hill towers 450m. The gradient is now about 45-40 degrees. Keep climbing and half an hour later you will come to a narrow ridge with a panoramic view of the plains and the Chikmagalur town and villages far below. You will find laterite caves along the way with bats. Follow the path as it winds uphill.

At 1,500m one reaches a stretch of flat ground, the size of a tennis court and there, before ascending Mullaiyanagiri Peak with a Shiva temple crowning the summit. Climb the 50-plus vibrating stone steps and you can have a darshan from the deity. Camp here in a tent, in the caves or in the temple courtyard. The hill is especially memorable in the monsoon when the wind whips 60-80 mph over the hill and the rain cuts into the rock face. On a clear summer day, the 8-9 km route (depending on how you traverse the hills) takes just over 2 hours to cover, but in the monsoon it can take up to 3 hours.





Kemmannagundi is located northwest of Chikmagalur, separated by the Baba Budanagiri mountain range. Mullaiyanagiri, the tallest peak, is nearly halfway through this range. The Baba Budangiri Dargah is 18 km northeast. To get there, head down a thousand meters northeast of the Mullaiyanagiri Peak, then walk to the intersection of two trails that run almost parallel to each other. One is used by shepherds who bring their cattle from the plains to graze on the grassy slopes, and the other by pilgrims and walkers. There are signboards pointing northeast to the dargah.

You can camp anywhere near the Dargah grounds or immerse yourself in a large hall in the Dargah complex with the pilgrims. If you want comfort, taxi down Nature Nirvana Plantation Getaways (Tel: +91-98440-42152 / +91-94483-64159; email: [email protected]/naturenirvana.com), 15 km away in Byne Khan and El Dorado coffee estates.

Trek naar Baba Budanagiri (Photo by Sai Sreekanth Mulagaleti)
Trek naar Baba Budanagiri (Photo by Sai Sreekanth Mulagaleti)





Kemmannagundi is 14 km to the northwest, but you first go around the shrine counterclockwise and to the southwest. You can easily see the trail. It leads through lush coffee plantations and scrub forests, through large barren gorges created by strip mining and then northwest to the Kemmannagundi Hill Station (1434 m), made popular by Raja Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar IV, who summered here in the 1930s. Due to this association with the king, Kemmannagundi is also called as Sri Krishna Rajendra Hill Station or simply KR Hills. The king himself built a summer palace at Kemmannagundi, which he later donated to the state government, along with his lands here. You can camp on the Kemmannagundi maidan. Or stay in one of the small 2-room lodges on the main road, which also claim to serve “brakfast”. The Hilltop Horticulture Department Guest House offers five cottages.





From the hill station, a number of trails run north-west to Z Point, a rocky promontory 3 km away, which offers panoramic views of the jungles covering the Western Ghats. To the left of Z Point you will see a path. Trek along this steep and narrow path and after 5 km you will hear the booming sound of the 160m Have waterfalls. In the old days, hundreds of captives of the chieftains and kings of the region were pushed over the falls to their deaths, on the rocks in the rapids below. Walk past Hebbe and climb another 2km and you will reach the 122m waterfall of the Kalhatti falls.

When you get there, you will see a temple through the cloud of mist, nestled in the cliff over which the water falls. This should take about 2 hours. Refresh yourself in the cool water and march for 11/2 hours parallel to the national road which takes off at the falls and leads to the hamlet Muthodi en het Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary. Camping on the Muthodi Nature Camp grounds or stay in their cottages or in the dormitory. The next morning, take a safari to the sanctuary. Go home by bus or taxi service available here for Chikmagalur.

Hebbe Falls (Photo by sanjibm)
Hebbe Falls (Photo by sanjibm)

Healing touch of coffee

Of Imam Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah is a cave temple in the lower reaches of the Baba Budanagiri mountain range, 32 km from Chikmagalur along the state highway. Legend has it that Hazrat Dada Hayat Mir Kalandar, a Sufi saint, arrived in these areas from Mecca in the 1960s, having gone on a pilgrimage to Haj. There, in the cities of Arabia, he had tasted the popular aromatic coffee made from Ethiopian beans. He gathered seven beans and when he arrived in the hills, planted the seeds and nurtured the saplings. Soon he cultivated a few acres on the hills and the brew captured the imagination and taste buds of the populace.

Dried and roasted coffee beans (Photo by Big Eyed Sol)
Dried and roasted coffee beans (Photo by Big Eyed Sol)

The saint was a teacher and a healer who lived in a humble house in one of the laterite caves in the hills. His teachings, coupled with his generosity with the refreshing brew, resulted in him Baba Budan, the saint who healed. No one is quite sure how the cave where he lived also came to be known as the abode of Dattatreya, an incarnation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. What is certain is that both Hindus and Muslims have worshiped this place since the demise of the saint. The Muslims called him a disciple of the Prophet while the Hindus considered him a reincarnation of Dattatreya. The shrine also spawned a syncretic belief that became an integral part of the region – the awadhut tradition that upholds a formless god and condemns caste and sacrificial rituals.

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